Ostriches in Emblem Books & Devices

The relationship of text, image, and meaning in emblem is complicated by the re-use of both images (blocks or plates) and text from edition to edition and printer to printer, across national and temporal boundaries. The emblem of an ostrich, sometimes holding a horseshoe, is an excellent example of this phenomenon. The emblem first appears in Paradin's 1551 Devices Heroïques, as part of a French courtly culture that is both one of the early adopters and modifiers of Alciati for day-to-day use. Devices, like impresa, or medallions became part of courtly dress and objects in sixteenth century France and England, in turn spurring new emblem books at the press. The 1551 ostrich holds no horseshoe, however, and is described in the accompanying text as a model for hypocrisy. The ostrich has excellent looking wings that it proudly displays, yet cannot fly. It is reprinted in much the same way in Whitney’s 1586 collection of emblems in English(this book is nominally Protestant but does not seem to change the meaning of the ostrich, even as it surrounds it with different examples of types of hypocrisy—a fact that perhaps indicates a simple text-image relationship is indeed complicated by context!). Despite the occasional hostilities between France and England (or the Low Countries) during the sixteenth and seventeenth century, emblems and devices like our ostrich were readily transmitted. Images crossed borders that people often couldn’t. Thus, a nominally Catholic French device could end up in a nominally Protestant English book printed cum privilegio of the Crown.

The ostrich crops up again in 1613, in a Dutch edition of Rollenhagen’s Nucleus Emblematum. This time, it clutches a horseshoe in its beak. This references Pliny, who notes that the ostrich can digest anything, even metals as hard as iron. In the background of the emblem, a blacksmith’s shop is at work. The motto added now reads “Nil Penna Sed Usus.” So the hypocrite ostrich is not so much a hypocrite as a deceptive image itself. One thinks that a bird would be useful for its feathers and its power of flight, but this bird is useful in that it can, like a forge, break down the hardness of iron into a malleable thing. A sign that seems to signify one thing at first, and has a history of that signification, can now signify something else entirely. If emblem books have a collective semiotics, it is certainly one that must account for change both in readership and in context.

In 1635, the ostrich is a hypocrite again. Retaining the motto “Nil Penna Sed Usus” and the van de Passe engraving from 1613, he is republished in Wither’s Selection of Emblems. Wither’s Selection is perhaps most notable for the poems Wither adds to pre-existing plates. Ten or so lines about the dangers of hypocrisy follow the ostrich, suggesting that Wither chose to ignore, or did not understand, the Plinynian reference in Rollenhagen’s original epigram. Wither’s book is theologically and emphatically Protestant in its introduction and commentary, yet contains a curious device: a lottery. The ‘lottery’ is a paper volvelle designed to be spun allowing the reader to select a random emblem. This is ‘harmless,’ according to Wither’s own explanation in his preface, because it is better for readers to play a kind of party-game than to idly speculate on God’s plans or purpose.

This seems dubious at best. The didactic point of nominally Protestant emblem books was to look behind the visible world for the invisible truth, just as Luther looked beyond the artifice of the Catholic Church for the pure truth of Christ. So, even if one were to spin the lottery wheel and land on the ostrich, it would not keep one from speculating idly on God’s designs. In fact it would encourage such speculation. Did the wheel land on the ostrich because the reader herself is a hypocrite? Or because she has Plinynian powers of material transformation? If the owner of the book had a curiosity cabinet or wunderkammer that contained, as they commonly did, an ostrich-egg cup (this one is actually a nautilus in the form of an ostrich, perhaps even more interestingly), does the emblem suggest that the cup portends its owner’s hypocrisy? Or that, in owning the cup, the patron is aware of hypocrisy and can thus avoid its danger? Or perhaps, in yet another reading made possible by the history of the image, the Latin epigram, and Wither’s own poem taken together, the cup signifies both the wondrous change in materials that innovations in metalworking in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made possible at the same time as it signifies the prior readings about moral character?

Aside from emblems, ostriches also make a notable appearance in Dutch printers' marks of the 15th-17th centuries, notably those of the van der Boxe family. Working metal and its alloys, a process equally grounded in the actual and allegorical meanings of gold, antimony, and lead, was an incredibly important day to day enabler of the Early Modern printshop. The ostrich then, which was once useful for its feathers, as writing quills and as hat ornaments, now is perhaps most useful as symbol of a newfound ability of the printer, like the bird's stomach, to mold and remold iron to his or her will, and in turn print the ostriches that appear in the emblem books below. Nil penna sed usus, indeed!

Alexandra Marraccini, March 2014

A large long-necked bird displaying its wings (a swan? has hooves?)

An Ostrich standing with its wings spread, looking to the left.

Nautilusbeker in de vorm van een struisvogel

vervaardiger: Hiller, Joachim

dpd_0039: An ostrich spreading its wings, holding a horseshoe in its beak; banderole

dpd_0088: An ostrich spreading its wings, holding a horseshoe in its beak

dpd_0397: An ostrich spreading its wings, holding a horseshoe in its beak; banderole

dpd_1060: An ostrich spreading its wings, holding a horseshoe in its beak; banderole

An ostrich with a horseshoe in its beak

An ostrich with a horseshoe in its beak

Portret van Christoph Guarinonius Fontanus

vermeld op object prentmaker: Sadeler, Aegidius

Strucio (ostrich)

An ostrich with a horseshoe in its beak

An ostrich with a horseshoe in its beak

De schepping van Eva ()

prentmaker: Passe, Crispijn van de (I)


(Giambattista Della Porta, De Distillationibus Libri IX)